My Brief Glimpse at (Maybe) the Last Big Private Wood Type Collection

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In December 2011 I got an email that a designer here in SF was selling a large wood type collection, consisting of several hundred typefaces, each taking up a large printers case.

I went to see them, and bought two, which was a stretch for me. But they were beautiful, and I figured this might be my last chance to get a good whole one (people break up these typefaces to sell the individual letters).

Here’s one of the two I bought,¬†Clarendon Extended by J. G. Cooley (a type foundry ultimately acquired by Hamilton Manufacturing). The Cooley logo on the font was in use from 1859-1868.

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About a year later I checked back with the seller, who said he’d sold the bulk of his collection intact to “an old printer” in Hayward, CA. Sensing an adventure, I called that guy to see if I could stop by his shop in an industrial park near the Hayward airport.

I’ll never forget that visit because I knew what I’d seen was unique and wouldn’t exist much longer. This guy was pushing 80 and still working in a huge unheated football-field-sized warehouse packed to the rafters with his quirky collections: wood typefaces in printers cases, pallets of vintage jazz LPs and assorted vintage large industrial equipment. There were a couple of Laney College letterpress interns running around using his equipment and typefaces, like they’d died and gone to heaven.

This guy had bought the San Francisco collection – which presumably had cost him over $100k. But he had no plans to do anything with it, other than keep it. He was happy to let me look at the typefaces, but wasn’t interested in selling (nor I in buying – what are you gonna do with hundreds of wood typefaces, as historic as they might be)?

I did however find a couple of really cool 1890s Hamilton Manufacturing Co. brackets lying on a shelf and asked him if he’d sell those. Oh yeah, he said… $20 for the two. He didn’t care about those, but I loved them! (they’re badass, and go well with my other Hamilton stuff)

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I lingered in this very cool printshop/warehouse/museum for longer than I should have, and eventually realized that the printer guy was drunk. When I called him a year later to check in, he’d passed away, the place had been disbanded, and no one knew what happened to all the typefaces.

There used to be hundreds of print shops in every major city, with proprietors passionate enough about printing equipment and typefaces (both wood and metal) to collect and curate them. Those generations are largely gone, and their collections have scattered to the wind.

Wood type culture will stay alive, however, as long as letterpress culture stays alive, and it’s doing quite well, thank you. Wood type was primarily used for poster headlines, like the posters created by historic shops like Hatch Show Print, now part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. This stuff is now having a hipster revival the size of Brooklyn.

As my for my two wood typefaces, I’m planning to have fun with them. Here’s a pic of the larger one I bought, stored in one of the drawers of my Hamilton Printers cabinet (it’s pretty rough because many of the letters have been “shop cut” to fit with other letters in a process called kerning.)

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And here it is getting a little more fresh air displayed on the wall:

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For those interested, there is still apparently a large (and working) wood typeface collection at the University of Texas, the Rob Roy Kelley American Wood Type collection. Rob Roy Kelley wrote the bible on wood type, which is till available in hardcover from vintage booksellers, and in paperback from Amazon.

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